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'The Good Doctor' Series Premiere Earns Both Praise and Criticism From Autism Advocates

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Lauren Appelbaum is the communications director of RespectAbility, a nonprofit organization fighting stigmas and advancing opportunities for people with disabilities.

In last Monday night’s premiere of “The Good Doctor,” Freddie Highmore starred as Shaun Murphy, a brilliant doctor who has autism. Fighting for a chance of a surgical residency at the prestigious San Jose hospital, his supporters also point out how Murphy is a savant.

Murphy’s brilliance is illustrated in how he saves a young boy, inventing medical devices in the field to ensure he stays breathing and then by detecting an irregular rhythm in his heart.

“The Good Doctor defies the myths about autism – that individuals with autism are unattached, desiring isolation, incapable of feeling,” said Founder of The Miracle Project Elaine Hall, who attended a premiere screening of the episode last Monday at the Semel Institute at UCLA. “Dr. Shaun Murphy is a highly sensitive, emotionally attached young man who has endured great hardships and tragedy and yet is capable of great feeling.”

Discrimination in the Workplace

Even so, hospital board members debate if the hospital should be hiring someone like Murphy. Dr. Marcus Andrews points out reasons against, including potential lack of bedside manner and temperament, as well as higher malpractice insurance.

Dr. Aaron Glassman, who has known Murphy since he was 14, is his biggest advocate. “We should hire him because he is qualified and because he is different,” he said. “How long ago was it that we wouldn’t hire black doctors at this hospital? How long ago was it that we wouldn’t hire female doctors at this hospital?”

“We hire Shaun and we give hope to those people with limitations that those limitations are not what they think they are, that they do have a shot,” Glassman later continued. “We hire Shaun and we make this hospital better for it. We hire Shaun and we are better people for it.”

Hall says moments like this in the show are moments of “truth telling.”

“The writers are not revealing an ‘autism or disability issue,’ but rather a civil rights issue,” she explains. “Actor Richard Schiff, who brilliantly portrays Glassman, exposes the discrimination and hypocrisy in the work place. He questions why a highly qualified, brilliant young surgeon may not be hired at a large hospital simply because he has autism.”

Through both flashbacks and events in real time, Murphy’s social deficits are highlighted, leading to bullying as a child and then as a medical resident.

After Murphy is approved to join the residency team, attending surgeon Dr. Neil Melendez tells him that all he will be doing is suctioning, that he does not belong as a surgical resident. Murphy responds evenly.

“I saw a lot of surgeons in medical school,” he says in the operating room. “You’re much better than them. I have a lot to learn from you. You’re very arrogant. Do you think that helps you become a good surgeon? Does it hurt you as a person? Is it worth it?”

Lack of Actors With Autism

Although he is playing a man with autism and savant syndrome, Highmore does not have either. This is common, as more than 95 percent of characters with disabilities on television are played by actors without disabilities.

Speaking in an interview with ABC’s Washington, D.C., local affiliate, Highmore recognized that Murphy does not represent all people with autism.

“I think there is a danger in saying that Shaun is necessarily representative of everyone, but at the same time hopefully everyone with differences and with unique ways of experiencing the world will recognize some of themselves in Shaun,” he said.

“The Good Doctor” has the opportunity to showcase multiple people with autism at different places on the spectrum to show true diversity. One such possibility would be showing the hospital becoming a Project SEARCH site, which also would be a great way to hire actual actors with autism.

Project SEARCH is a one-year, school-to-work program that takes place entirely at the workplace. This innovative, business-led model features total workplace immersion, which facilitates a seamless combination of classroom instruction, career exploration and work site-based training and support. Unlike other many other transition programs, Project SEARCH boasts a 70 percent success employment rate following the program.

Reaction on Twitter

The majority of the reaction on Twitter during the live airing of the episode Monday night was positive or neutral.

I have high hopes for this show. Showing #autism in this way will hopefully help ppl understand it better & end stigmas #TheGoodDoctor
— TV Addict (@TVAddict617) September 26, 2017

Loving #TheGoodDoctor. It’s refreshing to see someone with autism portrayed as capable and brilliant. @CTV_Television #ctvpremiereweek
— Nadia Elkharadly (@TheNadiaE) September 26, 2017

I’m in love with #TheGoodDoctor already. As someone who is in a wheelchair, it’s awesome to see Shawn kicking ass despite his autism!
— jenn (@bookishhipster) September 26, 2017

Have to say, I am quite impressed with #thegooddoctor Humorous to see how the world sees my blunt comments, lol #autismrocks
— The Mom Kind (@TheMomKind) September 26, 2017

#Thegooddoctor oh my gosh. My son asked to watch it. He has could I tell him no????????????
— Dr. Alisha Griffith (@DrAliGriffith) September 26, 2017

I’m autistic and I watched “The Good Doctor” and it wasn’t awful, but it’s a real mine field. Good luck, “Good Doctor”-ers. #TheGoodDoctor
— Alex Christensen (@AlejoEC) September 26, 2017

When Murphy is at the airport, the viewer is able to get a glimpse of the sensory overload he is feeling with all the different sounds – something that Twitter users with autism said they related to.

Woah. First 2 minutes of #TheGoodDoctor included a very accurate portrayal of being Autistic and getting overwhelmed in a public area.
— Catherine (@BigBadBraid) September 26, 2017

One thing I can relate to is sensory overload . #thegooddoctor
— diana prince (@DianaBruceBarry) September 26, 2017

However, many of Murphy’s shortcomings are explained away with the fact that he is “high-functioning” and a savant – something Twitter users were quick to point out as harmful.

Functioning labels in relation to #Autism is #ableism. “High-functioning” Autism is ableist. #thegooddoctor @ABCNetwork #ActuallyAutistic
— Samantha :o) :o) (@SmileyAutistic) September 26, 2017

I’m really uncomfortable with how this show throws autistic people with high support needs under the bus almost immediately. #thegooddoctor
— Sara Luterman (@slooterman) September 26, 2017

Are you saying autistic WITHOUT savant syndrome shouldn’t be doctors? #TheGoodDoctor
— Sam Bailey (@SammieRie) September 26, 2017

Some disability activists are hopeful the show will raise awareness that just because someone may have autism, that diagnosis does not limit his ability when it comes to employment.

“I am confident that ‘The Good Doctor’ will continue do much more than merely entertain, although it is highly entertaining,” Hall said. “I believe it could change the way the world perceives disability.”

Indeed, there are successful surgeons with autism and other disabilities in the real world and ABC has highlighted this in a 20/20 presentation, including Dr. Tyler Sexton, a pediatrician with cerebral palsy. ABC will use the short segment on Sexton, and profiles on other doctors with disabilities, as companion pieces to the new show.

This autism-focused show follows the August release of “Atypical,” a half-hour show on Netflix presented from the perspective of a teen with autism seeking independence. That show had mixed reviews from the autism community.

“The Good Doctor” was developed by David Shore (“House”) and actor Daniel Dae Kim (“Lost,” “Hawaii 5-0”) from a South Korean series of the same name. The series airs on Mondays at 10:00 p.m. ET on ABC.

Learn more at RespectAbility.

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Photo via Youtube.

Originally published: October 2, 2017
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